POLITICS

Donald Trump Is Accused Of Raping A 13-Year-Old. Why Haven't The Media Covered It?

There are two big reasons.

03/11/2016 5:57 AM AEDT | Updated 05/11/2016 12:31 PM AEDT
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If you’ve been anywhere near Facebook or Twitter in the past several months, you’re probably aware that there is a case working its way through the courts that accuses Donald Trump of raping a 13-year-old girl in 1994.

On Wednesday, the woman, who remains anonymous, was slated to appear at a press conference with her new attorney, Lisa Bloom, the daughter of Gloria Allred. Bloom wrote a column about the case in The Huffington Post last summer.

For months, people have wondered why this case isn’t getting more ― or, really, any ― attention in the press, even now that Trump faces an actual court date: a Dec. 16 status conference with the judge.  

The allegations aren’t entirely implausible on their face. The accuser says Trump raped her repeatedly at parties thrown by since-convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, who was widely known to throw wild parties with young women and girls. Epstein was convicted in 2008 of soliciting an underage girl for prostitution and served a small portion of an 18-year sentence.

In a New York magazine profile of Epstein before he went to prison, and long before Trump ran for president, Trump acknowledged that he knows Epstein. “I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy,’’ Trump says in the story. “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it ― Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”

The lawsuit against Trump includes affidavits from two anonymous women who say they were witnesses. Yet there’s been little coverage of the case. As one of the media outlets that has not published much about it, I can say there are two main reasons we shied away.

The accuser is anonymous.

The accuser in this case is anonymous, and the suit is filed under a pseudonym in New York. A previous case filed in California used the name “Katie Johnson.” To accuse someone in print of forcibly raping a child is about as serious a charge as can be made. To do that with an anonymous accuser would be an extraordinary step, putting the journalist’s reputation on the line.

One senior national reporter who has covered both campaigns said that the anonymity was the main stumbling block. “If it’s something that’s this damaging to a candidate, you better be sure, and she’s anonymous,” the reporter said, asking for anonymity to talk openly about the decision-making process. “Look, if she came out and she would do an interview, that would be different, but she’s an anonymous plaintiff.”

To go forward with an anonymous source shifts responsibility for the veracity of the claims from the accuser to the reporter. If the person is named and on record, the reporter can argue that he or she is merely reporting what the person is saying, and people are free to believe her or not. But giving anonymity says something different to an audience. It suggests, I, as a journalist, have investigated this person and these charges, and find them sufficiently credible to bring them forward without a name attached. Especially in the wake of the Rolling Stone fiasco, that requires an extreme amount of confidence in the source.

And the way the case rolled out did not inspire that confidence.

The accuser’s public backers have been savaged in the press.

One of the leading organizers of the effort to get the press to pay attention to this case is Steve Baer, an outspoken Republican donor. Baer last made news when his effort to out an alleged affair between Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) contributed to McCarthy dropping his bid to become House speaker. Baer’s style is to liberally cc and bcc an endless stream of powerful people, and it usually has the effect of getting none of them to listen.

When I wrote to him Monday night, for instance, to say I was going to write a story on why the media were avoiding the child rape story, he replied and cc’ed Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, along with a host of other media figures.

And Baer, in fact, is among the more credible advocates the accuser has going for her.

The accuser initially filed the case on her own behalf in California, but it was tossed for not stating an articulable violation of her civil rights. The case has since been refiled in New York, under the representation of a patent lawyer named Thomas Meagher. A patent lawyer handling the case hasn’t inspired the most confidence. (He didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

The least credible backer has to be a man who may or may not be named Al Taylor, but is more likely named Norm Lubow, and was apparently a former producer for “The Jerry Springer Show.”

Media outlets that have tried to get in touch with Johnson have had extreme difficulty doing so. The Daily Beast did a deep dive into the case and the people supporting the accuser in July, and came to a devastating conclusion: “Far from derailing the Trump train, Katie Johnson and her supporters seem to be in an out-of-control clown car whose wheels just came off,” wrote Brandy Zadrozny.

The Guardian and Jezebel also looked into the situation and came up with equally unfavorable takes. A writer who actually talked to Johnson came away confused about what to make of the allegations. It’s unclear if anybody has managed to speak to Tiffany Doe or Joan Doe, the two witnesses cited in the case. “Jezebel, The Guardian and The Daily Beast effectively poisoned the well on Katie’s credibility,” Baer lamented to HuffPost, accurately.

If you’re still struggling to understand why the story didn’t get more coverage, imagine for a moment that you’re a reporter thinking about spending weeks looking into it. Then go read the Daily Beast article. Still ready to go down that rabbit hole?

But as the reality of the court date increasingly dawns on the press, coupled with Trump’s own admission that he sexually assaults women, the case is getting harder to ignore. Baer said that two media outlets have recently done interviews with Johnson, and stories could pop at any minute.  

Erik Wemple, a media reporter at The Washington Post, said he hasn’t talked to many journalists about their decision to shy away from the story. “I can’t cover everything,” he said. “Around the spring, the Washington Post was getting hammered for assigning two dozen reporters to investigate Trump. I wrote a piece wondering whether that was anywhere near enough. It wasn’t, as it turns out.”

In some ways, given the role of Facebook in disseminating news, it matters less this cycle than any other previous one that the media have largely ignored the case. Open platforms, too, have helped the story circulate. The story that Bloom published on HuffPost’s contributor platform has been shared on Facebook 140,000 times. The piece has been viewed 5,221,475 times since June.

With Bloom’s planned press conference on Wednesday, things might have changed. 

But Johnson’s appearance was canceled at the last minute because Bloom said her client had received threats and was afraid of appearing in public.

On Friday evening, Bloom announced that her client had instructed her to dismiss the lawsuit.

This story has been updated to note the cancellation of the press conference and the dismissal of the suit.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

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